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Beating the Devil at His Own Game

By Heidi Madsen
From Midsummer Magazine, 1999

 

Anthony Trollope said in The Way We Live Now "If you make a bargain with the devil it may be dishonest to cheat him, and yet I would have you cheat him if you could” ([London: Penguin Books, 1994], 304). This may be a contradiction in terms if you consider that keeping faith with the devil--a renowned deceiver--may itself be dishonest. But, if the necessity arose, perhaps it would be best somehow to beat him at his own game.

Joe Hardy, the hero of Damn Yankees and a man immovably perched before the television set during the six infamous months of the baseball season, would at first seem an unlikely target for philosophical questions or any unusually life-altering temptation. But who can scent human weaknesses more keenly than the devil? Applegate, a.k.a. Satan, was well aware of how Joe’s peace of mind was bedeviled by the Yankees, how his love for the Washington Senators and his lust for their victory indeed held a great potential for demonic persuasion. His offers are so tempting, his arguments so tactful that it is nearly impossible to refuse.

“It’s not as though you’d be doing something so remarkable, you know. There’s nothing so unique about it. I mean, how do you suppose some of those guys in the Senate got their start?” These fiendishly clever argu-ments are straight from the pages of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, by Douglass Wallop ([New York: W. W Norton & Company, Inc., 1994], 31), on which Damn Yankees is based. Just one long-ball hitter, that’s all his team needed—and suddenly the opportunity was Joe’s! Sadly, his ambition to be a professional athlete had evolved into a spectator’s c*eam. For years he had lived the life of a baseball player vicariously from the opposite end of the television, accurately diagnosing the illegality of the umpire’s call or the stupidity of a badly executed play. Now, it could be his turn to choke up on that bat, grind his feet and secure them in the spit-saturated soil, and take the assured swing of victory.

Some might condemn Joe for being so easily taken in. (Applegate does, afrerall, light his cigarettes with-out matches.) But surely there are more daring souls who believe as Sigmund Freud believed that “the more magnifi-cent the prospect, the lesser the certainty, and also the greater the passion” (cited in Mary Renault, The Nature of Alexander [New Yorki Pantheon Books, 1975], ix). Even eternal repercussions mean next to nothing in this grander scheme of things. Perhaps Joe would wish to cheat the devil, resume his former place in the comforting clutches of his wife and Lazyboy, or perhaps there is more to him than that, a destiny hidden beyond boundaries he was surely meant to transcend. In this way of looking at things, as Marvin Kaye says, “Satan became something of a folk hero, an outlaw who promised those pleasures forbidden” (“Introduction,” Devils & Demons [New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1987], xiv). He also became the subject of stories and the object of questions about the nature of humans and their tempters.
Who or what is the devil? For differ-ent people he has been a Promethean hero, the most hopeless of villains, or something carelessly disregarded between these extremes. “In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Satan refers to an angel whose unpleasant duty, as in the book of Job, is to bring misfortune that will test mankind’s loyalty to the divine will” (Marvin Kaye, xiii).

Whoever he is, pacts made with the devil have proven an extremely adaptable theme, with protagonists rang-ing from a university scholar in Renaissance Germany, to a baseball (the sport of the true patriot) player in twen-tieth century America. Faust, as well as the concept of him, originated in Dr. Johann Faust, or Faustus, an astrologer/ charlatan who was born in Wurtemburg, Germany, and died about 1538. According to legend, Faust sold his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in exchange for pleasurable knowledge and knowledgeable pleasure (in essence he must have been a devout seeker of stimulation). Doktor Faustus, written by Thomas Mann between 1943 and 1947—published in the latter year— may have been a source of ideas for Douglas Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and, of course, Damn Yankees). The first concerns a devil, a man, and his subjection to hellish but seductive music; while the last concerns a devil, a man, and his temptation—set to music.

Earlier tellings include Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (around 1592) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832). The most signifi-cant difference between these two ver-sions is the legend’s outcome. Marlowe chose to damn the good doctor, while Goethe, first encircling Faust with the very fiends of hell, saves him at the last moment with transcending angels from above—his reward because of his con-stant striving after the knowledge of goodness and truth, and also his unas-suming belief in the existence of some-thing more elevated than himself Here, then, are two different concepts of human life and its outcome. The two extremes are to live conservatively, or to risk your soul in adventures. However, included, of course, in the obvious moral entanglements are not only man and his tempter, the prince of darkness, but the tempter’s direct opposition, the Lord. In one passage, though, the Lord would seem to agree with Mephistopheles when he says, “man errs as long as he doth strive” (Goethe, Faust, Parts One and Two, trans. George Madison Priest [Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 19523, 8). But the Lord would also seem to value strife when he later says, “Mankind’s activity can lan-guish all too easily, / A man soon loves unhampered rest; / Hence, gladly I give him a comrade such as you, I Who stirs and works and must, as devil, do” (9). So, after man succeeds or fails in his attempt to gain that thing desired above all else, can he then be content and rest quietly from his gluttonous brawl with the devil (at least for a time)?

Of all these versions Goethe’s Faust seems closest to Damn Yankees, and might most easily be compared to musical comedy, with its many comical passages, almost sarcastic contradictions and conflicts, and, of course, the German poet’s verse as its musical score. It comes closest to inhabiting the musical comedy world of Damn Yankees—a world with a kinder voice and gentler semblance, where even the devil keeps his word; Goethe’s play, unlike the versions of Marlowe and Mann, does not end tragically. Like Applegate, Mephistopheles possesses an almost morbidly endearing quality, cajoling his victims with unsubtle attempts at humor. One song Goethe included, means basically, “cease with your brooding grief to play” (39).

Perhaps, then, in these happier versions of the story, the devil is a symbolic embodiment of the more carnal impulses found inside most men (and women) and the battle is merely internal; perhaps we all have an impish element, an aptitude for brimstone. But perhaps the struggle is necessary, and, in the end, the fire is what shall make us divine, the chance to choose is what will bring us safely sliding home. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s words, humans “got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey” (“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” A Pocket Book of Short Stories, ed. M. Edmund Speare [New York: Washington Square Press, 1969], 22).


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